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FX: Let’s All Be More Patient About Ratings

Why it doesn’t make sense to judge a show by one airing

Does it still make sense to report ratings the morning after a show airs at a time when people watch so many views on DVR?

FX thinks not, and last week started what it hopes will be an industry trend. It declined to release ratings for “The Strain” the day after it aired, waiting instead until three days had passed so it could include viewers who watched later.

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Until now, FX, like other networks, has sent out news releases as soon as possible, putting its ratings in the most positive light possible. But now FX would like everyone to take a breath, wait, and give people who didn’t watch a show on the first night a few days to catch up.

Who is it hurting? Arguably, the reporters who cover ratings and fans who obsess over a show’s fortunes — though the numbers are still available, for a price, from Nielsen. Under FX’s new system, ratings obsessives will have to relax.

So far, no broadcast networks seem likely to follow FX’s example in the near future, because even if they stopped sharing their numbers, a competitor could leak them to the press, probably without a positive spin.

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FX faces the same danger. But it is in a better position than the networks to take a stand because it doesn’t air a full primetime slate each night, and doesn’t have built-in night-after-night competition like the broadcasters do with one another.

Even if they can’t stop sending them out, all networks agree that next-day numbers — called Live + Same Day in industry parlance — are of limited value. They give a snapshot of a show’s performance out of a gate, but can’t account for show like FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” (pictured) that greatly increases in audience after episodes initially air.

If nothing else, networks hope everyone will stop focusing on the rat race and look more at the long-term.

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That’s why so many networks give out Live + Same Day numbers, but also tout Live + 3 Ratings that monitor a show’s performance over its airdate and the next three days. Live + 7 tracks viewership over a week, giving viewers even more chances to watch.

“I don’t think there’s a research or programming or marketing or communication executive among us who hasn’t woken up to a Live + Same Day rating and been somewhat disappointed, only to be cheered five days later when the Nielsen tide brings in a Live + 3 and, in due course, a Live + 7 VOD and digital,” said Julie Piepenkotter, FX Networks executive vice president of research, at a panel with reporters Saturday.

Networks caution that Live + Same Day numbers are still essential for measuring the audiences of live contests — like singing competitions — and live sporting events. That’s because most viewers watch those events when they first air, for fear of missing out, or hearing who won the game on the way to work the next morning. An episode of “The Strain” will keep for a few days. The All-Star Game will not.

CBS chief research officer David F. Poltrack notes that both NBC’s competition show “America’s Got Talent” and CBS’s scripted “Under the Dome” might score 7.6 million viewers on the first night they air. But “Dome” will probably grow more in time-shifted viewing.

How much difference do a few days make? The most recent season of “Sons of Anarchy” scored about 4.6 million viewers in Live + Same Day viewing, but climbed to 11 million including Live + 7, encores, and video on demand. “The Strain” had about 3 million viewers in its premiere last Sunday. But in Live + 3 numbers, it climbed to 5 million.

Of course, it isn’t up to TV critics or network publicists to ultimately gauge a show’s success. That’s up to advertisers, who either pay top dollar to buy ads, or don’t.

But advertisers are already on board with looking at shows over the longer term. They pay for time based on C3 ratings, which measure the number of people who watch ads for a show in the three days after it airs. Increasingly, they’re signing on to C7 deals, based on commercial viewership over a week.

Fox Networks Group chairman and CEO Peter Rice said Sunday that half of the upfront deals the Fox network made for ad deals for the upcoming TV season were based on C3 measurements, and half were based on C7. Other networks have also increased C7 deals.

Such deals are becoming more attractive for advertisers as networks find new ways to keep ads timely. Networks are using more and more dynamic ad insertion to keep ads as fresh as possible even if a show is days old.

If a show originally aired on a Thursday, for example, it might include ads for a movie opening Friday, since movie studios want the biggest opening weekend possible. But a viewer watching the show on Monday might see a different ad, inserted after the opening weekend has past.

As Rice only half-jokingly puts it, all TV is, in a way, live: “You know, everyone is alive when they’re watching the show,” he said.